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Why Zetterberg’s potential two-year retirement plan is worrisome for Red Wings

Henrik Zetterberg said he may retire after the 2018-19 season, and the potential cap trouble and uncertain future Zetterberg's early retirement could bring is concerning for the Red Wings.

In July 2016, when Pavel Datsyuk left the Red Wings despite having one year remaining on his contract and headed back home to finish his career in the KHL, it signalled a significant changing of the guard in Detroit. Datsyuk was a franchise mainstay, a Red Wings superstar who had dazzled the team for decades, and there was no replacing him, no matter how Detroit tried.

If anything could console Red Wings fans, though, it was that Henrik Zetterberg wasn’t going anywhere. The veteran captain and now-undeniable face of the franchise was getting up there in years, celebrating his 35th birthday before the 2016-17 began, but he brought stability to a lineup that needed it. He brought leadership on and off the ice and, even if he was well past his prime, he still packed offensive punch, leading the Red Wings with 68 points — a full 20 points better than the next-highest scorer.

But it might be time for fans in Detroit to start worrying about losing Zetterberg, too.

In a candid interview with a Swedish radio station, since translated by The Detroit News via Aftonbladet, Zetterberg said that the intention when he signed his current 12-year, $73-million contract was never to play every single one of the dozen seasons. Instead, Zetterberg admitted, the deal was made to keep cap costs down and lock him into a deal that could “fool the system.” It was one of the now infamous back-diving, cap-circumventing contracts, the kind of pact which has since been outlawed, and it’s not hard to label it as such given Zetterberg will make $7 million this season, $3.35 million in 2018-19 and see his salary drop to $1 million in each of the final two years of the pact.

However, more notable than Zetterberg’s outright admittance of trying to game the cap system — which, we should be clear, was well within Detroit’s right to do at the time — was this bombshell he dropped regarding his future: “Actually, I may have two years left, but I have also learned to take one year at a time,” Zetterberg said. “But I will probably not play until (the 2020-21 season, the final year of his current contract).”

Yes, you read that right. After two more seasons, there’s a chance Zetterberg hangs up his skates, and that could pose some serious problems for the Red Wings.

Let’s start with the most pressing concern for Detroit: the salary cap. Using Zetterberg’s timeline and operating under the assumption that the 2018-19 campaign is his last in the NHL, if Zetterberg were to outright retire, the cap recapture penalty, a measure put in place to punish teams that signed players to cap-circumventing contracts, would see Detroit charged roughly $5.5 million per season in 2019-20 and 2020-21, according to The Detroit News’ Ted Kulfan. That would be tough for Detroit to swallow.

Per CapFriendly, the Red Wings are currently projected to have $29.5 million and $41.8 million in cap space during those final two years of Zetterberg’s deal, respectively. That said, subtracting $5.5 million each season could be equal the cost of a high-end roster player or two to three bottom-six skaters. Worse yet is those current projections are without contract extensions for Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou or defensemen Xavier Ouellet and Ryan Sproul. Depending on how each of those players develop, the presently projected cap space could disappear in a hurry and may leave Detroit with an absence of wiggle room that could be used to build around a younger core.

Of course, there’s always the option of placing Zetterberg on long-term injured reserve. The Red Wings already utilize LTIR for Johan Franzen, who was forced to retire due to concussions, and Zetterberg has had back issues throughout his career. If another back injury were to happen, or Zetterberg was simply deemed unfit to continue his career, LTIR is another route for the Red Wings that would at least allow Detroit some cap flexibility in those final two seasons. It requires some off-season shuffling, sure, but it’s better than being saddled with a $5.5-million cap hit.

The salary cap shouldn’t be the Red Wings’ only concern, however. It would be safe to say that, in a perfect world, Detroit would have had their succession plan in place for Datsyuk and Zetterberg before either were on their way out of the league, but that’s not the case. 

Over the past several seasons, the Red Wings have built their offense around the likes of Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist and Justin Abdelkader, and veteran Frans Nielsen was also brought aboard to provide some stability up front, but it hasn’t allowed for a clear next generation to stand out. That’s not to say the four aforementioned forwards aren’t key contributors — they are, to be sure — but calling them out-and-out star leaders that can carry this franchise into the future is a stretch. For that, the Red Wings have to look to Larkin, Mantha and Athanasiou.

The trouble there, though, is that following a 23-goal, 45-point rookie season, Larkin was drilled by a sophomore slump, scoring 17 goals and 32 points and watching his ice-time take a cut. He did get a few more opportunities in certain areas — he slightly increased his penalty kill time, for instance — but, overall, it was a disappointing season for a player with as much promise as Larkin. And while true that Mantha, who scored 17 goals and 36 points, and Athanasiou, who potted 18 goals and 29 points, had upticks in production, neither are yet at a point where they can carry the torch for the Red Wings.

That’s worrisome for Detroit because this franchise’s success throughout the 25-year playoff streak was built upon succession plans. When the likes of Yzerman, Shanahan and Fedorov moved on, Datsyuk and Zetterberg were around to take over. When Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios were done in Detroit, Niklas Kronwall was around to anchor the back end. But now, with Datsyuk gone and Zetterberg apparently on the homestretch, there’s no one ready to take over.

The one thing the Red Wings have on their side is a timeline: two seasons. That’s two more campaigns worth of growth for the trio of Larkin, Mantha and Athanasiou. It’s potentially enough time for the likes of Evgeny Svechnikov, Givani Smith, Tyler Bertuzzi, Michael Rasmussen to develop into effective members of the big club. And it could be enough time to ensure that the Red Wings aren’t completely lost when Zetterberg, who has spent his entire 1,000-game career in Detroit, decides to leave Hockeytown once and for all.

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